Many astronomical images are beautiful. People especially love pictures of spiral galaxies or planetary nebulas, but some others evoke a gradual sense of beauty. In science, beauty comes with knowledge: knowing what you see reveals why something is beautiful. The image above is one such: it’s fuzzy and not particularly colorful, but when you know what it represents, the beauty comes through.
It’s the image of a newly forming planetary system. We’re seeing the protoplanetary disk around a newborn star. The dark ovals in the picture are lanes where planets have swept up gas and debris to make themselves. If we were to witness the birth of our own Solar System, more than 4.5 billion years ago, it might look very similar. And it’s not an image we could obtain in visible light: only by using millimeter- and submillimeter-wave light (on the border between infrared and microwaves) can we see this system. We have never before witnessed a newborn planetary system in this much detail, and that’s where the beauty comes from. As I wrote in The Daily Beast,
Humans are cosmic mayflies. Our lives come and go quickly, only offering us glimpses of the slow evolution of the Universe. Human history is measured in centuries, while the birth and death of stars and planets take place over millions and billions of years.
For that reason, we will never see the formation of another solar system unfold before our eyes. Instead, astronomers hope to observe planet formation in all its stages, each marking a phase in star and planet birth. That tells us not just the story of other star systems, but offers a glimpse into our own deep history, the one we can never see. [Read more...]
(Unfortunately, an editor decided to use an artist’s impression to start the article, which is really a poor choice given that my whole article was about the real astronomical image. The real image is included later of course, but anyone reading the story might get the idea that the artist’s painting is what I’m writing about.)